A Detroit Lakes man was among five area veterans to receive the prestigious Sgt. Andrew P. Nelson Award for Outstanding Leadership & Service from the Boy Scouts of America.

Geoffrey Joseph Zehnacker of Detroit Lakes was honored at the second Annual Heroes and Leaders Gala held in Fargo Dec. 10.

The other recipients were Lynn Aasen of Underwood, Minn.; Dan Hoedl of Fargo; David Johnston of Fargo; and Gerald Stanford of Barnesville, Minn.

The award recognizes local veterans who quietly make a difference in their community in the way that they work, volunteer and make life better for others, according to a news release from the Northern Lights Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

Recipients are nominated by their friends, family, or co-workers and selected by a panel of community leaders. The qualifications are that he or she be a great employee, a veteran, and a volunteer somewhere in the community.

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No more than five awards are presented annually. The award is presented by the Northern Lights Council, Boy Scouts of America, but no Scouting affiliation is required.

The award is named in honor of Sgt. Andrew P. Nelson, who was an Eagle Scout from Troop 644 in Moorhead. He was known as a remarkable young man who exemplified the Scout Oath and the Scout Law and dedicated his life to serving others. Nelson died Aug. 29, 2007, in Iraq while serving his fourth tour of duty with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Zehnacker, 43, was born in Delaware. After graduating high school in 1996, he joined the Marine Corps, with his primary specialty as military policing.

He served in three overseas deployments to Iraq during the Iraq War, providing convoy security. His deployment dates were in 2004, 2005 and 2009 with the military police detachment in Wahpeton.

Multiple medals for three tours of duty in Iraq

Zehnacker earned a number of decorations, medals and badges in his career, including the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal (four times), the Marine Corps Achievement Medal (twice), a Combat Action Ribbon, the Iraq Campaign Medal (three times), the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon (four times), the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation (twice) as well as the Purple Heart, for injuries from an explosion in 2005.

Zehnacker retired from the military late in 2010 because of injuries sustained in the blast in 2005, and the multiple concussions he received that summer.

In 2011, Zehnacker met Linda Wiedewitsch of Lucky Dog boarding and training facility, and they started talking about service dogs, the impacts they could have with veterans who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, and a potential solution they may offer.

Zehnacker became the first board president of what is now the nonprofit Patriot Assistance Dogs organization, which provides service dogs for veterans free of charge.

Zehnacker and his family moved to Detroit Lakes in 2012, and he and his wife Nancy continued their work with Patriot Assistance Dogs.

In 2014, he graduated with high academic honors from M State in Detroit Lakes with an associate of arts degree, and he walked across the stage with his service dog, Luke.

At that time, it was decided to start looking for a new dog for the transition that was going to be needed when Luke could no longer perform his tasks. In February 2015, Geoff and his new service dog, Betty, passed the tests to become another veteran/dog team from Patriot Assistance Dogs. Betty was him when he walked across the stage to get his bachelor's degree from Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Geoff and Nancy both have been active participants with Cub Scout Pack 605 in Detroit Lakes, where their son Hunter started his Scouting endeavors in first grade and continues now while he has moved on and up to Boy Scout Troop 674. Nancy still is active with the Cub Scout pack, even though they have no kids currently with that pack.

Zehnacker is now working towards his master of social work degree in human development and family science, and he hopes to continue working with veterans and the Patriot Assistance Dogs organization.